Dolly Parton is like the best wine you’ve ever had – she really does get better with age. With forty-two studio albums, five live albums, two holiday albums and collaborating on 180 compilation albums, Dolly’s got enough experience under her belt to make sure her latest album, Blue Smoke, was as classic as she is. Released at the beginning of 2014 under her own record label, Blue Smoke walks that fine line between glib and skilled craft. Below is our track-by-track review of Blue Smoke.
“Blue Smoke” opens the album with a twangy guitar before Dolly’s vocals coupled with folky backups, come in describing the blue smoke that hovers over the Appalachians that gave them their nickname, along with the blue smoke of the old locomotives that helped to settle this region. “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ down the track!” she sings before uttering a howl to rival a real train whistle. A couple catchy breakdowns in this foot-stomper. “Unlikely Angel” is the first ballad on this album, sung to that significant someone who is always somehow there when you need them. The sad-sweet violin with the clear banjo licks brings to mind that end-of-summer nostalgia.
“Don’t Think Twice” is also a fiddle-filled ballad, but with a brighter, hopeful vibe that kicks up into a higher, stronger gear on this reinvigorated cover of Bob Dylan’s 1962 tune. As with any cover, if you’re going to attempt it, it’s got to be at least as good as the original, and Dolly is able to bring back to life instead of beating a dead horse. “You Can’t Make Old Friends” features Kenny Rogers on this slow and steady duet. A little on the serious side, images of grandma and grandpa rocking on the porch at sunset immediately fill my head. The duo reminisce about the good times while also wondering what the future will bring. “You and me, will be together again / Cause we both know, we will still be old friends / You can’t make old friends / Not the way we have always been.”
“Home” brings the album back up again with this spunky country rock tune, an ode to that place that lets you heal and be yourself. “I often think about where I have been / Where I am going and lots about when I think about / Home / Where the soul find comfort / And the heart find pleasure / Home!” Close your eyes and click your heels together three times – go on. “Banks of Ohio” is another beautifully reinvented cover of the old murder ballad, in which Dolly narrates a tale of a man who killed his lover after she rejects his marriage proposal on the banks of the Ohio. With Grammy award winner Carl Jackson’s solid harmonies supporting her story, Dolly brings this old standard into the 21st century.
“Lay Your Hands On Me” switches it up wonderfully with a gospel throwdown rendition of Bon Jovi’s 1988 hit. Despite its sexual origins, Dolly redirects this one to the big one upstairs, surrendering her salvation into the great beyond. Banjo circling the church organ, she hollers, “Lord ya know I need ya / Keep me outta trouble / Help me clear the rumble / Wontcha lay your hands on me!” “Miss You-Miss Me” fulfills the role of a country girl’s song to daddy, with severe lyrics directed at divorced parents, narrated by the little mountain girl (who’s now sixty-eight believe it or not). Lyrics such as “Don’t make me have to choose / I love the both of you,” will fill any divorced parent with a serious sense of guilt.
“If I Had Wings” haunts your ears long after it stops playing, the dark, noir-style tune that would have made the Civil Wars keen, warning, “If I had wings I’d fly away from / All of my troubles, all of my wounds / And I would fly ‘till I found freedom / If I had wings I’d up and go home / If I had wings, Lord give me wings.” “Love du Jour” Prepare yourself for Dolly’s opening whisper, for you will laugh out loud. Personally, I am of the mind that French and country should only mix in the form of NOLA Bayou music, and this raunchily bawdy tune comes across more as a gag, undoing the girl’s rather serious message of not being a boy’s toy.
“From Here to the Moon and Back” opens with Willie Nelson’s warm, gravelly voice, tenderly singing, bringing in Dolly’s part with such intimacy you soon forget the trainwreck you just heard. Despite her token doll-like appearance, this song reminds you that Dolly’s emotions are genuine, and her talent lies in being able to make you feel what she feels, relating to her unequivocally. “Try” is a whispered empowerment anthem that builds with the support of a gospel choir beneath Dolly’s vocals that slowly make you believe that you can, little engine, you can, if you only try.